Change is difficult. Nobody likes to see a pretty face suddenly turn ugly. For many Philadelphia Phillies fans, Tuesday's trade deadline moves represented the disfigurement of a pristine era in Philadelphia baseball. Perhaps that representation is valid. Perhaps it marked, for this team, for this nucleus, the official thumb click on a stopwatch that has less time to run than I'm sure any of the players left behind would like to hear.
What is unmistakable and evident when you look at the vital segment of Major League Baseball that is played outside the lines, is that the moves were absolutely necessary. And there may be more in both the short and long run.
The Phillies dealt long-time centerfielder Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers for 25-year old reliever Josh Lindblom and right-handed minor leaguer Ethan Martin. Lindblom will help them right now. The Phillies have endured a bullpen of young arms that has shown flashes of electric stuff amidst a wave of inconsistency, a lack of confidence and a general failure to understand that pitching is wholly different than throwing. Martin is a casino chip, a former first rounder that is finally coming around to show signs that the big leagues are attainable. He throws hard, mid-90s hard, with a hammer breaking ball. The question is, can he throw them where he intends to? He's flown up the Dodgers' prospect charts this season, but what Martin represents is a reloading at the minor league level for the Phillies. They've unloaded so many prospects in obtaining Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence, Cliff Lee, Joe Blanton and others that the farm crops are all but dormant.
Victorino was not returning to Philadelphia next season. As a free agent already making $9.5 million in 2012, he'll demand at least a three-year deal worth similar to the $36 million that Jimmy Rollins got from the Phillies this past offseason. He'll get it too. But the Phillies could not possibly fit that contract, for a player who has become marginal, under their ceiling after signing Cole Hamels to a six-year, $144 million dollar mega-deal.
Formerly, the Phillies would have gotten a high draft pick back for losing Victorino to free agency. That all changed with baseball's new collective bargaining agreement. They would have at least had to offer the Flyin Hawaiian a one year deal worth the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, which is approximately $12 million, in order to receive that compensation. They had no intentions of offering him anything, so it became imperative to deal him now to get anything back. The move was prudent, no matter how much you enjoyed Victorino's work in the community, or clung fondly to the slam he hit off of C.C. Sabathia in the 2008 NLDS, or his Gold Glove work patrolling center.
The Phillies gave up perhaps their No. 1 pitching and hitting prospect to get Hunter Pence at the deadline last season. They should have, and the fact that they gave him up Tuesday to the San Francisco Giants does not change that. A year ago, they were on the verge of winning 102 games with a pitching staff that rivaled any put to work in the bigs over the last 50 years. They had not been producing at the plate with the same thunder as in previous seasons. They needed a right-handed bat, and there was no reason for them not to go full boar after another World Series. It didn't work out, thanks to the red hot red birds in St. Louis, but that's sports. Sometimes you have to deal with circumstances as they present themselves.
Quite obviously, Phillies' general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. couldn't have possibly envisioned the catastrophic season the Phils have fumbled through in 2012. Cliff Lee has two wins on August 1? Roy Halladay has not been himself all season, begging the question, will he ever be again? Their record and the state of their rotation stipulated that Amaro get a deal done with Hamels right now. That deal changed the financial landscape for the Phillies, leading to the Pence trade.
Hunter Pence was dealt to the San Francisco Giants for big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz, who will provide bench depth eventually (if his role is larger it could be a problem). The Phillies also received the Giants' second-rated prospect in catcher Tommy Joseph, as well as Single A pitcher Seth Rosin. Joseph is the prize. He immediately becomes the Phillies best offensive prospect. He's young, has power, and should be ready to take the reins behind the plate for the aging (although incredibly gracefully) Carlos Ruiz in another season or two.
The return for Pence is bonus when compared to what this deal does for the Phillies financially, which probably means nothing to the common fan, but should, because it dictates the kind of team they can field moving forward. With Pence and Victorino gone, the Phillies saved roughly $6 million this year, which brings them below the $178 million luxury tax. It would have been the first year the Phillies were smacked with that bill. That first year comes with a 17.5% price tag.
Next season, the Phillies will undoubtedly fly over the $178 million threshold. If it were their second year over, the price tag becomes 30%, and those are serious numbers that the Phillies' ownership partners are not prepared to deal with. Next year, at 17.5%, they will muddle through knowing that a new television deal that will bring a financial windfall to the Phillies is due to get done in 2014.
Pence was also going to make around $14 or $15 million in arbitration going into a free agent season next year. If you've watched the Phillies closely this season, his affability and comic relief don't account for his horrendous plate discipline and less than stellar defensive play. Simply, he's not worth that kind of cash at this point.
The Phillies may not be done. The waiver trading deadline season has just begun, and guys like Joe Blanton, Juan Pierre, Ty Wigginton, and even Cliff Lee could stay on the trading hot seat through August. More than likely, Lee wouldn't be dealt till the offseason, but I believe Amaro is going to put 2013's eggs back into the basket of Hamels, Halladay and Lee, and the Phillies will find a way to keep him. The deeper they can get into Lee's marathon contract, the more likely they'll be able to unload him for a haul without having to pay a large part of the deal, and no team likes paying dime one for players that aren't wearing their uniforms.
With the contracts of Victorino, Blanton, Polanco, Pence, Wigginton, Jose Contreras and Jim Thome wiped clean from the books after buyouts for 2013, the Phillies will have unburdened themselves of $40.4 million in salary. After $15.5 million in raises to Lee, Hamels, Ruiz, Kyle Kendrick and Lance Nix (just $200,000), that leaves roughly $25 million with your three pitchers intact. If you figure a couple of million in arbitration raises to Vance Worley and some of the young bullpen arms, you should still have over $20 million to go and sign a centerfielder, third baseman, bullpen help or perhaps a fifth starter. You should be able to get two solid players without going over where you were just 48 hours ago.
The key is this. Next season, because they were able to unload at the deadline, they'll have the luxury to pay the luxury tax, and it looks as if they fully plan on doing so.
It's tough to turn the page. But on the other side of gloom and doom is still the same organization with money to spend, and a full intention to spend it. As long as that philosophy stays in place, Phillies fans should have no reason to fear that Amaro and company will do everything they can to put a winner on the field every season. Even if 2012 is one hell of an ugly blip on the radar.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer and a Philadelphia sports enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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